Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Rule of Tonnage

Brown Bear Chignik Alaska
Rule of Tonnage

We had parked our scow near a familiar cottonwood growing on a 270 yard long, fish-spear-shaped island in a pool we call Devil’s Flats. The Flats are a massive 16 acre piece of water featuring two islands of substantial size and every kind of promising salmon water an angler might imagine. The cottonwood tree sits at the tip of what might be thought of as a backward-angled barb on a spear. There is a shallow eddy behind the barb which offers a secure place to leave a boat anchored to the bank.

We’d walked downriver to a second barb extending out into the water – a good place to set up for an evening of fishing. Our backs were to the river as we assembled our rods, laced up our lines and chose flies. Behind us, fresh Silvers, colored-up Reds and a few nearly spawned-out Pinks finned languidly in water the color of clear, liquid emeralds. It was the Silvers that had drawn us to the pool, ten to twelve pound fish still bright from the sea.

I was, as usual, talking when Barbra interrupted me with a sharp, hoarsely-whispered, “Listen!” I knew instantly what to listen for. Directly in front of us just out of view behind the island’s dense growth of willows, thick grasses and flowering plants gone to seed was a bear and there was little doubt that it was heading straight for the point of land where we had set up.

Casting about for a course of action, the best I could come up with was the proposal that we simply back away. “He probably just wants to fish,” I offered. Suggested. Hoped.

“Hey bear! We’re here!” I called out as we began backing into the river. Barbra joined in the familiar call of “Hey bear!” as, fly rods in one hand, the other on our holstered cans of bear spray, we felt our way backward, searching for firm footing among slick riverbed rocks in our hobnailed boots. Spare rods, the net, fly boxes and a backpack were on the shore where we’d left them. The snapping and cracking of autumn-browned vegetation grew louder as the bear drew closer. We both remember thinking that we hoped he didn’t step on our rods.

Suddenly, 900 pounds of hungry bruin emerged from the brush. I’m hesitant to apply human emotions to bears, but he squinted at us as we stood out in the water making our strange (but non-threatening) vocalizations, then he surveyed the gear strewn across his path, and then he shifted his look back to us with what appeared to be a mixture of confusion and annoyance – weighted heavily toward annoyance. He finally gave a little huff, entered the river where it eddied behind the barb of the spear, splashed forward to trap something with his forepaws, stuck his head into the water and came up with a male humpy fixed squarely between his jaws. His efficiency was laudable. Water cascading down his face, the salmon wiggling wildly in his mouth, the bear gave us another look. He seemed to be gauging our reaction to his catch. Assured that we weren’t going to contest his meal, he moved into shallow water and tore into the fish. “Look at the size of those claws!” I whisper-shouted to Barbra. We were in water only knee-deep, as close as we’ve ever been to a feeding bear.

When that snack was finished he waded a few feet downriver and repeated the trick. Another pink, this one a female. He nimbly held it between his enormous paws and took a might chomp. Ripe eggs burst from her belly. The bear, which initially had emerged only a few feet from us, was dozens of yards downriver by the time it caught its third salmon, a crimson-bodied, green-headed Red. With the pool crasher finally at a safe distance, our breathing and heart rates began returning to normal.

“Rule of tonnage!” Barbra exclaimed with a laugh as we waded ashore. The reference is to a nautical phrase we picked up in our sailing days. While not a law, per se, it is an acknowledged matter of practicality that a smaller vessel (us) is well advised to make way for a larger vessel (the bear) when on the same course. Arriving at the bank we traded fly rods for cameras, however the bear had continued moving downriver and by now wasn’t offering much of a photo opportunity. But we’ve got the story of that encounter and photos from other days at Devil’s Flats that recall the memory and our sense of awe at being so close to such a magnificent animal and the smiles – “Rule of tonnage.”

Conditions have to be just right to get quality images of bears on the Chignik. Optimally we hope for a fair weather evening coinciding with a falling tide. As the sun drops into the valley, it floods Devil’s Flats with soft light so that downriver subjects are bathed in gold. A falling tide concentrates the salmon, making it easier for bears to successfully fish. I made this photography on September 18, 2020. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4 with 2.0 TC, 1/600 at f/8, 1200mm, ISO 2000)

Fish Spear Island

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Return to Clarks River

Salmon fishing Chignik Alaska
Return to Clarks River

Each September we pick a day when the forecast is for clear skies, pack up our gear, and head up the lake to Clarks River. In years past, we hiked a three-mile honda trail across a rolling landscape of tundra, berry bogs, salmonberry brakes, meadows and dense stands of alders and willows. This year, we took our scow up the lake and beached it on the sandy shore near the mouth of Clarks.

The Silver fishing here can be phenomenal, though it is seldom as easy as the fishing further downriver. By the time they’ve arrived at Clarks, the salmon have been in the river awhile. Although many are still silvery bright, we’ve found them somewhat less inclined to come to our flies than are newly-arrived fish. Nonetheless, basking under blue skies while presenting flies to 10-pound fish cruising the lake’s shoreline is a pleasant change from swinging streamers in river current. We can often see the takes as a salmon peals off from the pod of fish it is swimming with and turns to inhale whatever combination of fur and feather we’re offering.

At some point, the urge to explore the lower reaches of Clarks River itself overtakes us. As we make our way across the sandy beach and then along the well-worn bear path following the river, we never cease to be amazed by evidence of just how many bears fish here. The trampled, matted down vegetation strewn with salmon parts suggests more of a bear highway than a bear trail. There are always a few eagles hanging around, seals, gulls, mergansers and other ducks, and we’ve come across the tracks of otter, mink, moose, wolf and wolverine.

The salmon are always there in September, so many that at times they seem to carpet the rocky river bottom. Every so often a fresh school of fish enters the river, and when they do they sometimes come in such numbers that the wake they push before them looks like a tidal bore. As with the lake, in Clarks’ extraordinarily clear water, the fishing is not a given. But with the right fly, thoughtful casting and patience, we manage to coax a few. The challenge is part of the enjoyment, as is the knowledge that most probably ours will be the only flies any of these salmon ever see.

It is difficult to make a good photo of Clarks itself and the salmon we catch there. During early morning in September, the mountains that cup Clarks keep it in shadow. By the time the sun rises above those jagged peaks, it shines very bright. The process reverses itself as evening approaches, the valley abruptly transitioning from bright to dark in moments as the sun disappears. Barbra made the above photo in the evening of September 12 along the lakeshore just below Clarks. Shirtsleeve fishing in Alaska in September is not a thing to be expected, but each year we’ve picked a day or two, made the trek to this pristine river, and lucked out. (Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/1000 at f/8.0, 31mm, ISO 400)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Flattop

Chignik Lake Alaska
Flattop

It is not an easy hike. Nor is the trail, now overgrown with disuse, easy to find. But one fall day a couple of years ago, a visiting friend and I made the climb to the top of Flattop.

This is the view looking across the lake and across the Alaska Peninsula toward Bristol Bay. Clarks River, a spectacularly clear, nearly pristine spawning tributary, enters the lake just out of view to the left. To the right, the lake narrows and passes by the village of Chignik Lake and then tapers further as the water picks up speed and becomes Chignik River. If you look closely, you can just make out the airplane landing strip on this side of the water near the right-center of the photo. (Nikon D5, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/160 at f/22, 24mm, ISO 320)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Orbs

Chignik Lake Spider Web
Orbs

Some years they are abundant. Other years less so. But the appearance of small, brown spiders and the circular webs they weave are a seasonal marker indicating the transition from summer to fall at The Lake. These webs, often spun among the dry, gray-brown stalks of Cow Parsnip, are yet another sign Barbra and I have come to associate with Silver Salmon season on the Chignik.

I made this image on September 21, 2016, the day before the autumnal equinox. It had been not quite two months since we’d first arrived at The Lake. As is true of many other photographs I took back then, there are technical and compositional shortcomings in this capture. And yet, there are elements in this picture that I like, and it brings back memories of a beautiful fall day and a pleasant hike along the trail to Clarks River. Looking at this image, I can almost see the clouds of midges that hung in the air that morning as the sun rose, the air warmed and iced over puddles began to thaw. There was color everywhere – scarlet geranium leaves, fat blueberries sugary with frost, perfectly ripe cranberries against the green of their foliage and fireweed leaves in all the colors of an autumn forest in western Pennsylvania. I took a picture of an icy bear track that morning, and of a frost-bitten shrew, perhaps caught and discarded by a shrike or a fox, discarded on the path. There was wolf scat on the trail, clumped with hair, fresh. On the way home, a flock of southern-bound robins landed in a copse of alders – a surprise, the first of that species I’d seen at Chignik Lake.

It was a good day. I think it is this power that has alway drawn me to still images… that a single photograph can cause one to smile, and in a moment the tension is released from one’s shoulders and a little sigh of contentment passes from one’s chest.

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Summer’s End

Chignik Lake Alaska
Summer’s End

Our first year in Chignik Lake, we attempted to cram ourselves into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment. We were soon spilling out of it, prompting a move to a slightly larger home. In addition to offering more square footage, our present place serves as a terrific wildlife viewing blind. Situated just 30 yards from the lake, we’ve seen 13 mammalian species from our living room/dining room windows. Add to that loons, ducks, falcons, eagles, cranes, snipe, passerines and other avian species, and the view out the picture windows is kind of like having the National Geographic Channel on 24/7. When the Coho are in, we can actually see them from our place, prompting us on several occasions to drop dinner forks, pull fly rods down from their wall pegs and have a go at the migrating salmon. At night, sometimes ambling bears pass by so close that we can hear their paws crunching in the sand outside our open bedroom window.

But the view from the windows of our first place was also lovely, and although it didn’t offer the wildlife viewing our current home offers, a very cute, high-spirited ermine once ran right over the toe of my boot as I entered the mud room. Here was the window view on August 15, 2016, our first month at The Lake. I was just beginning to get into more serious photography at the time and made several technical mistakes in composing this picture. Yet, it remains one of our favorites. (Nikon D4, 17-35mm f/2.8, 1/320 at f/9.0, 17mm, ISO 1600)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Fireweed

Redpoll Fireweed Chignik Lake
Fireweed

The first Fireweed shoots emerge in late May or early June. At that time, the dew-soaked four or five inch shoots are crimson red with a touch of purple, perhaps showing a hint of tangerine when backlit by the morning sun. This is the perfect time to clip a few at the base and sauté them as you would asparagus to be served with the evening’s grilled halibut.

From the moment those first crimson leaves emerge, we watch, marking spring, summer and fall by the stages of the Fireweed’s growth. By the end of June the plants have grown tall enough to brush against the tops of our Muck Boots as we follow bear trails to the river in search of Sockeyes, but they are flowerless and inconspicuous, overshadowed by Yellow Paintbrush, Nootka Lupine, Yellow Monkeyflower and Wild Geranium. A sister species, River Beauty, is already splashing gravel bars with fuchsia, reminding us that it is time to start searching the Chignik’s deeper pools for Chinook. The world is alive with activity. There will be fuzzy-headed Rough-legged Hawk chicks peaking out over their nest at The Bluffs, swallows gliding above the lake and bears which emerged winter-skinny from hibernation will be filling out on fat Red Salmon. The summertime sun barely sets; it is difficult to force oneself to turn in at night.

Come mid-late July, Fireweed crowns are nodding with buds. Any day now, the blossoms will burst into four-petaled, magenta-pink flowers. High summer at The Lake. Skiffin’ season.* From this point on, we will mark time not so much by clocks and calendar dates, but by whether or not we’re hungry or tired, how many salmon have been counted at the weir, how much the year’s new bear cubs have grown and the ascension of Fireweed blossoms as they progress to the top of the crown.

Toward the end of August, only a few petals cling to the tops of the plants. Below those petals is a progression of slim, red, bean-shaped seed pods growing heavier each day. Silvers have begun entering the river en force, marking the start of two months of remarkable fly-fishing. The newly arrived salmon are thick with muscle, spirited and dime-bright. But by mid-September, they will begin to show hints of autumn’s reds, golds and muted greens. The first fireweed seeds ride fall breezes on cottony parachutes – “Fireweed snow” we call it. Looking to the mountains, it is at about this time that we will see termination dust powdering the peaks.*

Summer’s end.
—————————————-

I made the above photography on August 6, 2020 shooting from my living room window. The house itself serves as a blind. The photo shows how Fireweed blossoms begin blooming at the base of the crown, buds yet to bloom further up the stalk. The bird is a Common Redpoll.  (Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8 with 2.0 TC, 1/1250 at f/6.3, 400mm, ISO 1,000.

*skiffin’ – skiffing; boat-riding.

*Termination Dust is an Alaskan term referring to the first snow in the mountains, signifying the end of summer and the beginning of fall.

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: There is a river…

Chinook King Salmon Chignik River
There is a river…

T-shirt and jeans, belly down, bare elbows on scratchy, crazy-red carpet my mother had insisted on, chin propped in cupped hands, I pored yet again over one of the articles in the magazines my grandfather had given to me and that were permanently scattered across my bedroom floor. I had, once again, escaped… to a world barely touched, to wilderness rivers, large fish, peace, calm… quiet.

All of it was fascinating, enthralling to my young mind. It was only 50 years ago, but the world was a different place. Less explored. Less trammeled. Discovery on a grand scale was still  possible. And so whether I was reading for the fourth, fifth or 11th time an article about fishing for the exotic Mahseer of India, skittish Bonefish in the Bahamas, ginormous Northern Pike in a seldom seen Canadian lake or mammoth Striped Bass in the Massachusetts surf, I found myself absorbed in the mystery of possibility and promise.

Early in life, I joined a fraternity whose members’ first contact with Latin was the binomial Salmo salar – “Salmon leaper,” Atlantic Salmon. Back then, there were still lots of Atlantics in the Canadian maritime provinces. They thrived in rivers with magical names: Miramichi, Grand Cascapedia, Restigouche… Scenes brought to life by writers such as A. J. McClane and Lee Wulff.

At the same time, Pacific Coho and Chinook in staggering numbers ranged all the way from northern California to sub-Arctic Alaska. A guy with a car, gumption and gas money could explore the West Coast fishing on his own, following in the steps of legends like Zane Grey and Bill Schaadt. I’d show my dad the articles, the photos of big fish – bass, pike, muskies, salmon, all of it. He’d rattle his Pittsburgh Press newspaper with a shake, look up for a moment, and absently say something like “That looks interesting,” in the way people say something looks interesting when, in fact, they have little interest in it.

Years passed by. Years became decades. As time slipped away, so did the salmon fishing I’d read of. Dams, development, timbering practices, pollution, overfishing, salmon farming, hatcheries… The 70s, 80s, 90s and the first two decades of the 21st century have visited a thousand cuts on salmon and their rivers. Throughout the world, from the Pacific Northwest to the Gaspé Peninsula to Scotland, Norway and beyond, the fish have responded by retreating. As rivers with strong runs of salmon have been pared down, the water that remains generally falls into one of two categories: those accessible only through outfitters, lodge owners and guides; and those where you can expect to fish among a crowd.

Neither option holds much appeal beside the dreams of exploration, adventure and discovery inspired by copies of Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield read in boyhood.

It has been a long, winding, unpredictable path that has brought me to this river. Most days Barbra and I have the fishing to ourselves, save for bears, otters, seals and eagles. We know it is unlikely to last… But for now, we are here and there are fish and there is quiet and solitude and dreams and dreams come true. (Barbra made this lovely photo on August 24, 2020. Tackle: Orvis Helios II 8-weight, Galvan T-8, WF floating line, 10′ leader w/ 20lb tippet, Chartreuse Rocket Man #2. Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/640 at 7.1, 48mm, ISO 800)

 

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Sea Pup

Chignik Sea Otter pup
Sea Pup

Forest-like patches of bull kelp, a rocky shoreline, small islands and protected bays add up to Sea Otter habitat. While there always seem to be at least a few of these engaging animals in the nearshore sea along the Chignik coast, late spring and early summer when mothers can be found nursing pups is a particularly rewarding time to look for them. We found the pair in this photo on June 28, 2020 along with over 100 additional otters just outside of Anchorage Bay, an inset of the larger Chignik Bay. The mother’s surprised expression and the hint of the pup’s pink tongue set this photo apart from other captures we got that day.

Shooting from a boat at sea is always challenging as subject and photographer alike are continuously in motion. Reflected by water, light can overwhelm an image causing highlights to be blown out. For a moment, clouds obscured the sun, but there was still enough light to set the ISO low, close the aperture enough to keep both mother and pup in focus, and still shoot fast enough to get a clear image on a gently bouncing sea. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4, 1/2500 at f/8, ISO 500.)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Triplets

Chignik Lake Brown Bear Cubs
Triplets

The hundreds of thousands of salmon ascending the Chignik River each year nourish everything from bears to birds to berries. Each gleaming Pink, Red, Silver, Chum and King returning to its natal spawning grounds might be thought of as a nutritional brick – keystones to the fecundity and biodiversity of the Chignik drainage. All of us can support healthy salmon ecosystems – and the bears, eagles, orcas and other wildlife that depend on wild salmon – by making a commitment to not consume farmed salmon and to instead purchase wild-caught salmon. While it is true that wild-caught salmon generally costs more than farmed salmon, by purchasing wild fish value is accorded to the clean, free-flowing rivers they need in order to thrive. Think of the extra money spent as a contribution to these triplets and similar wildlife. And remember: If it doesn’t say “wild” on the market label or restaurant menu, the salmon is farmed. Almost all Atlantic Salmon in the marketplace – certainly all that is sold in the U. S. – is farmed.

The living room, dining room and bedroom windows of our home sit just 30 yards from a sandy beach on Chignik Lake. From June through September, Brown Bear sightings are virtually daily events. Even on the few days when we don’t actually see any Brownies on this bear thoroughfare, we find evidence of them in the form of freshly cast footprints. With so many bears in such close proximity to our house, Barbra and I can often get good photographic captures from our windows – safe for us and safe for the bears. Such was the case on June 22, 2020 when we noticed a familiar sow with her triplets on the beach. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4, 1/250 at f/6.3, ISO 500)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Upstream

spawning sockeye chignik river alaska
Upstream

Five species of Pacific Salmon spawn in Chignik Lake, Chignik River and its tributaries. Although numbers vary from year to year, the cumulative total of returning salmon is in the hundreds of thousands. There is a place on the river where at the peak of the run in July, the number of returning fishing splashing through the shallows can be heard from a quarter of a mile distance, like a cascade. The salmon in these shallows in turn attract massive brown bears, crying gulls, piping Bald Eagles, foxes, mink, otters, seals and other wildlife.

I made this photo on July 24, 2020, near the peak of the Chignik’s Sockeye Salmon run at the shallows described above. My primary subject that day had been bears, but as I watched salmon pushing through a piece of flat, shallow water I was struck by the silky quality of their wake. These spawning Sockeyes are a stunningly bright red, but I thought there might be a nicely contrasting, silvery black and white image to be made. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4 with 2.0 TC, 1/500 at f/8, 1200mm, ISO 800)